All Bad Poetry is Sincere

by F.

That’s what Oscar Wilde said and Harold Bloom mentioned Wilde’s quip apropos of Maya Angelou’s verse, which is not so much bad as average. But compared with Angelou’s poems, the stuff most of us wrote as teenagers is so embarassing that mostly we hope it’ll never see the light. And yet, we wrote it. In my case, pages of it.

I thought about bad poetry (and its related form, bad philosophy) when watching Into the Wild. It is a brilliant movie. In fact, this film astounded me, especially because I was prepared for Penn to deify Mccandless. (I got that idea from Ty Burr’s review in The Boston Globe.) That’s not the way it looked to me. I saw a protagonist who carried his void with him into the wild. And guess what? Things aren’t no better out there than in suburbia. Probably worse. Thoreau was a fool. Walden is more suicide manual than self-help book.

The voice over from Mccandless’ sister was jarring me until I realized something: that that’s the way an adolescent girl who’d lost her brother would sound. She would say sappy things. (All bad voice over is sincere.) I mean, I can vividly remember thinking absolutely stupid things when younger and knowing, even as I was thinking these things, that I was being stupid. But that’s just the way it is for some of us. I recall, after breaking up with a girlfriend, crying my eyes out and yet knowing that everything would, in the end, be OK. But I still had to cry my eyes out and listen to bad pop music to get there.

To me, Into the Wild is an exercise in extended irony. On the one hand, I could understand everything that the protagonist did. Probably many can—hence the popularity of the book and the enshrining of his magic bus. On the other hand, and at the same time, I knew how futile his whole quest was. And for the 2 hours and 20 minutes I followed Mccandless’ journey, I felt both feelings. At the same time. And that, to me, is one of the most powerful things dramatic art can do.

[composed and posted with